What about the food?
July 21, 2007
I always say that food is not food without wine, and vice-versa. It therefore seems that most wineauxs are also foodies, so I thought that you might be interested in my take on Italian cuisine in Italy.
I found that it is hard to classify food as "Italian". In every region the food styles and traditions are vastly different, and the people from which the traditions are native are extremely proud of every component. There are, however, some consistencies throughout. For some reason, the Italians like to feed you until it hurts. They seem to do that everywhere. Another congruency is that in every region of the country, people like their food raw, it just depends on what kind.
In the north they like donkey and horse and prepare it both in the form of tartar and carpaccio. In the center they seem to be fonder of cow. On the coasts they like their fish and mollusks raw and in the south they like their mollusks live. I was in heaven, by the way. Another similarity throughout Italy is of course the famed pasta. Every region has a unique style of pasta. To be totally honest, while it is the heart and soul of the Italian table, I wasn’t nearly as impressed by the pasta as I was by the homemade salamis and meat dishes.
I think that the first thing that you have to learn when eating in Italy is that you need to take your time. A meal is an event and is not something to be taken lightly. The typical Italian meal goes like this. First, you sit in the restaurant and are ignored for twenty minutes. Don’t be offended, they are just letting you settle in. You then start with the antipasto course. This is always my favorite as this course shows not only the local culinary traditions but also the areas food products. For example, when in Bergamo, you are likely to see Tallegio cheese, homemade salami, the region’s local bread, and a local cured meat called culatello. In Puglia, or the heal of Italy, your antipasto course is likely to include fresh octopus in a olive oil and lemon sauce a swell as fresh shrimp and fish. The problem with this course is that it is so good that you will likely overeat and not be ready for the next few course. This course is usually served with the region’s local white. In the case of Bergamo you may have a fresh and crisp Franciocorta whereas in Puglia you are likely to have a rich and spicy malvasia.
The next course called the "Primi" is often the pasta course and is common nearly in every corner of the country. I found that the pastas in the shape of a stick like spaghetti are often factory-made and lack any real character. However, the really great pasta courses are the tortalini and ravioli styles, shapes that are handmade and filled with the best local produce and meats. While I realize it is sacrilege, this is the course that most times I could do without. Maybe it is because the pasta course is so filling that it makes the rest of the meal harder to enjoy but I think it is also the blandest. What makes a really great pasta dish is the quality of everything except the pasta. The sauce, the oil, and anything that might be wrapped in the pasta. Of all the pasta courses I had, and there were a lot, my favorite was a simple stick shaped pasta that had a tomato sauce that was so fresh it tasted electric.
The next course is called the "Secondi." This course is usually some really great piece of meat or fish, often served raw or at most seared. It almost seems like the Italian’s way of showing how fresh and great their meat. This was always one of my favorite courses often showing how clean simplicity can be the best form of fine food. For example, in Alba I had a dish of beef tartar that was surrounded by six lemon slices that were each endowed with a different spice. They were all mixed together in a bowl with a raw egg and then mixed into the meat tableside. It was the most flavorful form of beef I have ever run across and served with a rich Barbera D’Alba it was an epic dish.
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Finally was the dessert course that in my opinion was best in the form of espresso and grappa. Everyone seems to make a grappa in their garage and they use the excuse of its digestive attributes for an after dinner drink. I don’t know if it really worked, but I sure gave it the old college try.
Zev Rovine is the sommelier and resident cheese monger at the Spotted Frog Bookstore Cafe and Wine Bar where he teaches weekly wine classes. His wine education comes from the American Sommelier Association in N.Y.C. and he tries his very best not to spill the Pinot on the bestseller section. If you have any wine queries or comments he is easily contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org